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Immersive Art In A No-Touch World

Michelle Montjoy is currently the featured regional artist at Lux Art Institute, but her touchable, immersive installation opened right as California enacted stay-at-home orders

Michelle Montjoy's exhibition,

Credit: Michelle Montjoy

Above: Michelle Montjoy's exhibition, "Borrow Pit" is installed at Lux Art Institute in this March 2020 photograph.

In early March, San Diego-based artist Michelle Montjoy was busy. She had just launched a group show at Cannon Art Gallery ("Edges Frayed," with Irma Sofia Poeter and Bhavna Mehta) and was about to begin installing "Borrow Pit," her large-scale fiber art exhibition at Lux Art Institute. She had recently returned from an idyllic, wintry artist residency at Wyoming's Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, during which she completed much of the work for "Borrow Pit," meditating on community and connectedness.

But by March 17th — installation day — the region was mostly in lockdown mode. Schools were closed, large-scale events were canceled and telework had begun for many San Diegans or the loss, furlough or pause of work for others. Everyone's experience of community and connectedness was rapidly evolving, but Montjoy stayed the course, documenting the install over social media.

In creating "Borrow Pit," Montjoy wanted to evoke the interconnectivity of trees and the way it mimics human connection, so each fiber sculpture was constructed by first asking her friends, loved ones and community for old garments and clothing. From these pieces, she created yarn, and from the yarn she built dozens of textile works that hang from the rafters or pool on the floor.

Photo credit: Michelle Montjoy

A piece from Michelle Montjoy's installation, "Borrow Pit," in a March 2020 photograph.

It's large-scale, site-specific work — and intended to be immersive. By nature, immersive art involves bodies being in a space, and Montjoy had to change the way she installed the work. Her original intent was to space out the pieces more, inviting more lingering, tactile experiences as audiences visited her work.

But as the installation approached, she needed her work to adapt to the new realities for audiences. Large, hanging finger-knit sculptures and twisted tree-like pieces are now grouped closer together than she had planned, but the result is that the work is all visible from the large front windows of Lux's Linda Formo Brandes Gallery space. Montjoy also included, as a last-minute addition, small sweater-shaped sculptures to "occupy" the space.

Photo credit: Michelle Montjoy

"Borrow Pit" at Lux Art Institute in a March 2020 photograph.

While Montjoy wishes visitors could sink their hands into a "furry" piece, she took it in stride. "I'm not the least bit disappointed," Montjoy said about the changes. "It's really interesting to have it exist in this way. This is what we do as artists, we learn to pivot all the time because you know, shit happens and we're creative and we try to just problem solve."

Montjoy hopes that the tactile, immersive, in-person experience will re-emerge while her installation is still up, but embracing the digital experience has also been a lesson — and a joy — for her.

Photo credit: Michelle Montjoy

A detail of Michelle Montjoy's "Borrow Pit" installed in the ceiling at Lux Art Institute in a March 2020 photograph.

In addition to a live-streamed, remote opening night reception, exhibition tour and artist talk — still available on YouTube — Montjoy and Lux are cooking up more ways to share Montjoy's art with the world on their digital platforms. Montjoy jokes about letting kittens loose with a live webcam. And for now at least, even though they're closed, Lux Art Institute will keep the lights on in the exhibition space so that the works are visible at night from outside, through May 23.

UPDATE: The kittens happened.

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Julia Dixon Evans
Arts Calendar Editor and Producer

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI write the weekly KPBS Arts newsletter and edit and produce the KPBS Arts calendar. I am interested in getting San Diegans engaged with the diversity of art and culture made by the creative people who live here.

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